Every year, Kuala Lumpur plays host to a global halal conference, an indication of how important the Malaysian government views the international market for products that comply with Islamic rules. The event covers everything from food to financial services, which probably comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who thinks the term only refers to the way an animal is slaughtered. So what does halal mean, and how does it affect visitors to KL?
At its simplest level, halal is everything which is “permitted”. Its flip-side is haram (haraam), which means “forbidden”. The two most obvious items which are forbidden to Muslims are pork and alcohol. But the list of what is haram is very much longer than just these two prohibitions, ranging from touching dogs to getting a tattoo. For Malays, it is against the law not to abide by these rules, rather than a matter of personal choice.
While these prohibitions do not apply to non-Muslims, the ever-stricter interpretation of what is halal does have a large impact on everyone in Malaysia, regardless of their beliefs. The growing importance of middle-class Malays to the restaurant business means that a dwindling number of eateries serve pork. It is virtually impossible, for example, to find a KL pizzeria that uses real ham or salami. And forget about getting proper bacon as part of even the poshest hotel breakfast.
As yet, alcohol is rather easier to get your hands on, even in many eateries that describe themselves as halal. As late as the 1970s, beer companies advertised openly to Malays, and many of them still imbibe, albeit on the quiet. The sentencing of a Malay woman to caning a couple of years ago for drinking a beer brought home quite how serious the anti-alcohol laws are these days.
For non-Muslims, visitors and locals alike, it is still possible to be non-halal in KL, so long as you know where to look. Every supermarket has a “naughty corner” for non-halal products, which you pay for at special tills.
A small number of Italian restaurants, such as Neroteca; a couple of Spanish tapas places, including Pinchos and El Meson; every German pub, and several British ones too; virtually every stop on KL’s most compact pub crawl; and of course Chinese coffee shops, including the wonderful Yut Kee, remain non-halal and proud. One well-regarded restaurant, El Cerdo, is even named after the forbidden animal.
But with KL becoming ever more Malay, and Malays become ever more religiously observant, for non-Muslims it’s a case of get your haram treats while you can.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.